Most research on sexual assault and the sexual abuse of minors in the state of Alaska has been focused on Anchorage; little has been known about the characteristics of these problems in other communities. The Justice Center, working with the Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Department of Law, has completed the first thorough review of sexual assault incidents reported to Troopers in 2003 and 2004. The results delineate a first draft of the problem in Alaska’s smaller communities, for the population primarily served by the Troopers.
The final sample in this study included 989 cases with a sexual assault or sexual abuse of a minor charge, reported to Troopers in 2003 and 2004, and closed by the time of the study. It is important to note that this study did not include any sexual assault cases reported to local or municipal departments. In addition, this study did not include cases specific to child pornography or online enticement of minors.
Almost half of the reports included in the study (48%) came from C Detachment, which covers western Alaska, from Kotzebue to Kodiak (Table 1). The C Detachment headquarters is in Anchorage, with the remaining posts in Aniak, Bethel, Dillingham, Emmonak, King Salmon, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Nome, and St. Mary’s. The Bethel post handled 17 percent of all sexual assault and sexual abuse of minor cases reported to Troopers in 2003 and 2004. Thirty percent of the reports came from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation (ABI), whose Major Crime Unit is responsible for investigating sexual assaults and other person offenses statewide. The Alaska Bureau of Investigation has posts in Anchorage, Palmer, Fairbanks, and Soldotna. ABI posts in Palmer and Fairbanks handled 16 percent of all sexual assault and sexual abuse of minor cases reported to Troopers in 2003 and 2004. Together, C Detachment and ABI handled 78 percent of all reports. Forty-two percent of the reported cases originated in communities connected to the State of Alaska highway system, and 58 percent were reported from communities off the road system.Most reports (86%) were made directly to troopers. The remaining 14 percent were reported to Village Police Officers, Village Public Safety Officers, or Tribal Police Officers. Few of the initial complaints (21%) were made by the victims themselves. Most initial reports to law enforcement (79%) were made by a third party. In over two-thirds of the cases (69%), the identity of at least one suspect was known.
The 989 cases in this study included a total of 1,645 sexual assault charges and 258 non-sexual assault charges (Table 2). The most common sexual assault charges were second degree sexual abuse of a minor, first degree sexual assault, second degree sexual assault, and first degree sexual abuse of a minor—all felonious assaults (Unclassified or Class B). Together, these four offenses accounted for 81 percent of all sexual assault charges. The most common non-sexual assault charges included assaults (in the second, third, or fourth degree), burglary (in the first or second degree) and kidnapping. Together, these three offenses accounted for 50 percent of all non-sexual assault charges.
Despite the geographical distance that is often present between victims and Troopers, most victimizations were reported quickly to Troopers, and Troopers were quick to respond. Sixty-two percent of cases were reported within 72 hours, which, at the time of the study, was the benchmark for initiating a call to the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and collecting evidence with a sexual assault evidence kit. Seventy-seven percent of suspects were interviewed by Troopers (recall that the identity of the suspect was known in 69% of cases). Fifty-seven percent of suspect interviews occurred within one week of the report. Ninety-six percent of victims were interviewed, with 48 percent interviewed on the day of the report and 80 percent interviewed within one week of the report. Ninety-one percent of victim interviews were conducted in-person. On average, cases were closed 18 weeks after they were reported (Table 3). More specifically, 30 percent of cases were closed within three weeks, 50 percent were closed within eight weeks, and 75 percent were closed within 24 weeks.
A majority of cases (61%) were closed and referred for prosecution. These included cases closed by arrest (32%), closed and referred (26%), and closed but declined (3%). The remaining cases were closed after investigation (23%), closed as unfounded (15%), or closed by exception (1%). These latter groups of cases (excluding those closed by exception) were all closed without a suspect being arrested and in some cases without a suspect being identified. Cases that were closed as unfounded were more likely to be reported by third parties who were concerned that a sexual assault may have occurred.
Suspect and Victim Characteristics
From the 989 reports included in this study, we gathered information on 1,050 suspects and 1,082 victims. Most suspects (97%) were male and most (87%) were adults. Conversely, most victims (89%) were female and most (73%) were juveniles. The average age of suspects—29.2—was 13 years greater than the average age of victims—16.2 (Table 4).
Figure 1 displays the number of victim-suspect combinations on the horizontal axis, by victim age on the vertical axis, for five different suspect age groups, in horizontal bars. The top five age group combinations were (1) suspects 31 years old or older and victims 0 to 12 years old (N=137); (2) 16 to 20-year-old suspects and 13 to 15-year-old victims (N=113); (3) 21 to 30-year-old suspects and 13 to 15-year-old victims (N=89); (4) suspects 31 years old or older and victims 31 years old or older (N=76); and (5) suspects 31 years old or older and 13 to 15-year-old victims (N=75). Together, these five age group combinations accounted for 48 percent of the assaults for which both the age of the suspect and victim were known.
Most suspects were Native (59%) or White (37%) and most victims were also Native (61%) or White (38%) (Table 4). Intra-racial victimizations were much more prevalent than inter-racial victimizations, with 91 percent of Native victims assaulted by Native suspects and 84 percent of White victims assaulted by White suspects. Slightly less than half (43%) of the suspects had used alcohol; few (7%) had used drugs. Substance use was most frequent among suspects age 21 to 30, followed by suspects age 31 to 40 and suspects age 16 to 20. Among victims, 27 percent had used alcohol and 5 percent had used drugs. Substance use was most frequent among victims age 13 to 15, followed by victims age 21 to 30 and victims age 31 or older.
Most victims (all but one) were not homeless, nor were most suspects (99%). Most victims (71%) were not living with the suspect at the time of the assault, but overwhelmingly, the victims reported knowing the suspect in some fashion (98%) (Table 5). Only 2 percent of all victim-suspect relationships involved complete strangers. Nearly half (46%) involved friends or acquaintances, 35 percent involved relatives, 12 percent involved current or past intimate partners (including married couples), and 4 percent involved suspects that were in a position of authority over their victims. Together, friends, relatives, and intimate partners accounted for 94 percent of the victim-suspect relationships in the study sample.
The nature of the victim-suspect relationship varied substantially by the age of the victim. In particular, minor victims were substantially more likely be assaulted by relatives than adult victims. While only 17 percent of adult victims were assaulted by relatives, 41 percent of minor victims were assaulted by relatives. Minor victims were slightly less likely to be assaulted by friends or acquaintances (43%) than adult victims (57%) and slightly less likely to be assaulted by current or former partners (10%) than adult victims (17%).
The five most common ways that victims and suspects came into contact with each other prior to the assault were by living together (32%); the suspect inviting the victim somewhere (20%); the suspect attacking the victim indoors (15%); the victim inviting the suspect somewhere (10%); and the victim and suspect meeting up with each other at a party (9%). Together, these five pickup methods were used in 86 percent of the assaults (Table 6).
The five most common pickup and assault locations were identical, differing only in terms of rank. These locations included mutually shared residences (25% of pickups and 25% of assaults), the suspect’s residence (25% of pickups and 30% of assaults), the victim’s residence (20% of pickups and 17% of assaults), someone else’s residence (14% of pickups and 14% of assaults), and outdoors (10% of pickups and 7% of assaults). Private residences accounted for 84 percent of pickup locations and 87 percent of assault locations (Table 7).
The reported use of weapons by suspects was very rare in this sample of sexual assault cases. The one major exception, however, was suspects’ use of their hands and/or arms to restrain or strike their victims during the assaults. In slightly less than one-third of the incidents, suspects used their hand and/or arms to restrict victims’ movement or to assault victims physically beyond the sexual assault. Other weapons such as knives, guns, drugs, or blunt objects were reported to have been used in less than 1 percent of the incidents.
Sexual penetration, as defined by Alaska law, was documented in 60 percent of the assaults. On average, suspects engaged in just over two sexual acts (2.16) per assault (Table 8).
As a result of the assault, 19 percent of victims experienced general physical pain. In addition, 10 percent suffered bruising or swelling. Lacerations, bite marks, and bone fractures were rarely reported or documented (less than 3% of victims). Overall, very few victims received any type of emergency medical treatment for injuries suffered as a result of the sexual assault. Only 4 percent of victims received emergency medical care for genital injuries; 2 percent received emergency medical care for non-genital injuries; and less than 1 percent received emergency medical care for alcohol or drug intoxication.
Detailed information was gathered on the availability and collection of several types of evidence, including physical evidence, electronic data, and photographic documentation.Physical evidence from the victim (e.g., clothing) and victim sexual assault evidence collection kits were the most commonly collected types of evidence, gathered in 22 percent and 20 percent of cases respectively (Table 9). Suspect sexual assault kits were collected in only 7 percent of cases, and physical evidence from the suspect was gathered in only 13 percent of cases. In the majority of cases, there was no physical evidence recovered from the scene (84% of cases) and in 87 percent of cases, the scene was not photographed. Search warrants were obtained in 36 percent of cases. The most common warrants were for the victims’ medical records (26% of cases) and glass warrants (13% of cases). Forensic exams of evidence were requested in only 16 percent of cases, with forensic DNA exams the most commonly requested (14% of cases).
Photographs of suspect injuries and the recovery of a weapon were the least common types of evidence collected (also the least available) during investigations.
Overall, evidence collection appeared to be somewhat low, although the statistics represent only what was included in the reports (Table 10). This is an important limitation with this study because evidence was counted as collected only if it was included in the report. This is particularly problematic with photographs. In some cases, photographs were taken, but were kept separately from the report (i.e., stored electronically but not printed to include with the report). In these cases, we counted the evidence as not collected because it was not found within the report. The statistics reported here therefore underestimate how frequently evidence was collected by Troopers.
Future analyses will be necessary to determine how these types of evidence impact legal resolutions. Two main factors determine the applicability and availability of evidence: one, the nature, or severity, of the reported incident; two, the timeliness of the report. Both factors impact what evidence is applicable and what evidence is available to be collected.
We examined data from the Alaska Department of Law (DOL) to determine the legal resolution for cases in the study which were referred to DOL. We did not examine referrals to other agencies, such as the Division of Juvenile Justice. From the sample of 989 reported cases, 46 percent (N = 452) were referred to DOL for prosecution. Sixty percent of the cases referred to DOL (N = 273) had at least one charge accepted and filed with the court for prosecution (Table 11). Of those cases with at least one charge accepted by DOL, 80 percent resulted in a conviction. The highest level of attrition occurred from report to referral. Once cases were referred, the likelihood of at least one charge being accepted and resulting in a finding of guilt was quite high.
Additional analyses showed that attrition was less likely in cases with one or more witnesses than in cases without witnesses and was less likely among rural cases than among urban cases (rural cases were defined as those emerging from locations not connected to the State of Alaska highway system). (See “Case Attrition of Sexual Violence Offenses: Empirical Findings” in this issue.)
From the 989 reports, a total of 1,171 charges were referred to DOL. Sixty-six percent of these charges were accepted by DOL. Thirty-one percent were declined with a required dismissal and 3 percent were declined without a required dismissal. The most frequently cited reasons for not accepting charges as referred were evidentiary reasons, with the two most common evidentiary reasons being inadequate corroboration and insufficient evidence.
Because evidentiary reasons were the most common reasons for not accepting charges that were referred and because evidence collection was somewhat low, it is imperative that we improve the capacity to collect evidence, when it is available. In “Sexual Assault Nurse Examinations in Alaska,” also in this issue of the Forum, the importance of documenting non-genital injuries is discussed. In this study, victim injury photos were taken in only 55 percent of applicable cases. Again, this estimate may be low because some victim injury photos are kept separately from the reports. Nonetheless, there is room for improving evidence collection and resources should be provided for these improvements.
The findings presented here constitute a first look at the problem of sexual assault in smaller communities across the state—those served predominately by the Troopers. Further research will undoubtedly provide a more detailed picture.
André B. Rosay is an Associate Professor and the Interim Director of the Justice Center. Greg Postle is a doctoral student at the University of Delaware. Darryl Wood is an Assistant Professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Katherine TePas is a Program Coordinator with the Alaska State Troopers. This project was supported by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice (Grant No. 2005-WB-GX-0011) and by the Violence Against Women Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice through the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (Grant Numbers 2003-WR-BX-0210 and 2004-WF-AX-003). Points of view in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.